"You remind me of a childhood friend. So much. She still lives in Belgium. When you go there one day, you should meet her." Regine Verougstraete, now living in Los Angeles, was my back seat buddy as the four of us drove to the Korean spa where we would spend the afternoon.
The anticipation was exciting and excruciating. Exciting because, having grown up in the southeast part of the US, I'd never been in a Korean spa before. Excruciating because it's common practice to take off your clothes when you enter these places. I was spending the afternoon with my new friends, 3 gorgeous women who have enjoyed this and other such spas many times before. I, on the other hand, generally make it a practice not to remove my clothes on a Sunday afternoon with any of my girlfriends - old or new.
It's not that I'm a prude. Far from it. Actually, I rather love the sensation of nudity. It's just this whole "body image" issue. I could write pages. I won't. Let's just say my habit of keeping my clothes on in a room filled with people I don't know is well established.
So Mara drove on and she and Brenna, my LA hostess, gabbed in the front seat as I sat riveted by my new exotic friend in the back. Regine is an artist from Belgium and everything about her presence was, to me, enthralling. The word that comes to mind today as I think of her is that she "shimmers." It's not a word I generally use, but okay. We'll go with that. I felt a connection and comfort level with each of these women, and in this moment, I couldn't imagine being anywhere else.
But the thing about the public nudity... it was there. Not a huge deal, but still, resting quietly under the surface, occasionally popping back up. Since Brenna had invited me a couple of days before, I'd decided that my "try as many new things as possible, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you" would get a run for its money and no matter how outside my comfort level it might take me, it's exactly what I wanted to do. As is often the case when something is on my mind, I now decided that maybe it would be good to just talk about it for a bit. Sometimes saying words aloud helps to demystify a perceived issue.
"Today feels like kind of a big deal," I told Regine. She smiled and nodded. "Yes?" and encouraged me to continue. "Well, I'm really looking forward to going. It's exciting! But I don't even usually take my clothes off in front of my best friend." My new friend nodded again. Then she looked at me intensely, still smiling, and raised an eyebrow. "This would probably be a good time to tell you something." I invited her to say more. "I'm The One Breasted Woman," she said directly. "I had cancer and I've lost one of my breasts."
It was then that I realized the relativity at play. To me, having more weight on my body than I'd like to carry is a big deal. Clearly not big a deal enough to have managed to do anything about it - yet - but still, sometimes enough of a deal that it affects my enjoyment of various activities. And? Sometimes I'm reminded that there are much bigger issues I could be dealing with.
But a different lesson emerged than just the "remember to count your blessings" or the one about how all our issues are relative. I also realized that while here was a gorgeous, fascinating, Light Filled European woman in front of me who happened to also have one less breast than I did, nothing about this difference in any way impacted my observation of her beauty. It's not that I was unfeeling about her loss nor that I felt an inability to respect or have empathy for the struggles she's been through with her fight with cancer. It's merely that at no time, clothed or unclothed, did I look at her and think of her as remotely less beautiful than I would have had her body never been cut.
We spent the afternoon moving from whirlpool to plunging pool, one filled with steaming mugworts tea, another freezing cold, and steam rooms with jade walls and charcoal ceilings. We lay under blankets on warm marble slabs, and scrubbed our bodies and each other's backs with special creams and scrubs and rough mitts, indulging ourselves in the luxury one often doesn't indulge in on an ordinary afternoon. We spoke in low voices, laughing, bonding, connecting through our commonalities and our differences. And never once did I feel it mattered that my body was heavier than any of theirs. Any more than it mattered that all three of their bodies have likely been changed by carrying and perhaps nursing children, while my own has not. I just never noticed.
"They" are always quick to remind us that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And I tend to think that they're right. I also think it's important to remember to be as kind to ourselves as we are to others and these others are to us.
Regine has been on my mind a lot lately, and I wanted to share a link to a blog post she wrote about recent pain in her remaining breast. It's some of the most candid and revealing writing I've read in a while. She also shares some touch drawings she did as a part of her personal therapy and work toward finding peace and balance in the face of her fears. Perhaps you'll find it as poignant as I did. I hope so.